Scholarship in “Plain English”: Joseph Lowry on Law and Commandment in Sūrat al-An‘ām

By Cem Tecimer

Abstract: Joseph Lowry on Islamic Legal Minimalism: Lowry, in line with his other work focusing on how the Qur’ān does not read as a detailed legislative text, draws attention to the fact that the Qur’ān does not often purport to normatively interfere in human affairs. Lowry conceptualizes this phenomenon as legal minimalism deployed in the Book, citing various verses as evidence.

Source: When Less is More: Law and Commandment in Sūrat al-An‘ām 9(2) Journal of Qur’anic Studies 22-42 (2011)


In this article, Lowry focuses on certain verses of the Qurʾān, namely 6:136-153, to show that this part of the Qur’ān at least espouses a concept of legal minimalism. The verses concerned essentially start with a critical description of practices in force in other communities, followed by a more lenient and less regulatory framework offered by the Qurʾān in support of Lowry’s claim that the Qurʾān espouses legal minimalism. (See, in the same vein, his Reading the Qur’an as a Law Book Yale Law School Occasional Papers, Paper 13 (2015), in which Lowry argues that the Qur’an cannot be read as a law book.)

Lowry examines theses verses in five sections:

  • In Q. 6:136-142, the Qurʾān speaks of the reprehensible deeds of the idolaters, or mushrikūn—deeds that included infanticide and declaring some animals to be taboo. He identifies and emphasizes in these verses a “suggestion not to place any but the most minimal restrictions on God’s bounty,” furthering the idea that God’s bounty is only a minimalistic burden when juxtaposed to the restrictive (or excessive) practices of the mushrikūn.
  • In Q. 6:143-145, Lowry points to a list of norms considered undesirable, each criticized with “sarcastic questions” that follow. For example, one verse asks whether God has forbidden the females or the males of the animals that some people allege are forbidden to eat (p. 24). The sarcastic questions are followed by a few restrictions on dietary matters, such as those on eating carrion, blood, pork, and things sacrificed in the name of deities other than God (p. 25).
  • In Q. 6:146 the Qurʾān speaks to a set of restrictions on individual diets, which seem to counter the early proposition that the verses generally reflect a stance of legal minimalism. However, Lowry quickly notes that this part of the Qurʾān is concerned with restrictions on the diets of the Jews, imposed on them as a form of punishment. He concludes therefore that, although there is a detailed set of dietary restrictions in this section, it is explained by its punitive nature. That very fact helps prove the general norm of fewer restrictions.
  • In Q. 6:147-150, the Qurʾān speaks in a polemical tone, arguably in response to the harsher dietary laws of the previous verse. Phrases such as “if they accuse you of falsehood” and the imperative, then “say: qul” are employed in this section, to set forth a polemical tone.
  • Finally, in Q. 6:151-153, the Qurʾān reaches the entire “passage’s climax,” where a set of general commandments are announced—in sharp contrast to the “preceding parade of defective, burdensome, complicated and unsanctioned norms.” These simple precepts such as not killing one’s child, treating parents well, and not committing idolatry are all reflective of the passage’s “most minimal” character when it comes to the Qurʾān’s normative intervention into humans’ affairs (p. 26).

One way of looking at these verses is to situate them within a broader framework of the sūra (chapter) in which they exist: one that starts with Abraham’s discovery of a single god, then stipulates general dietary laws, and only then incorporates the subject matter of the verses discussed above come. Another way of understanding the verses is to see them (esp. verses 141 and 151-153) as Medinan (from a period of more detailed laws that followed Muḥammad’s establishment of a policy over which he ruled), in contrast to the rest of Chapter 6, which is generally seen as Meccan. The fact that verses 151-153 in particular are Medinan can be construed as a deliberate move to supersede the Meccan practices with a lenient alternative. In other words, as a matter of intertextual interpretation, when we situate the commands in verses 151-153 in the broader domain of Qurʾānic commands (such as those contained in Sūrahs 2, 4, 7, 17, and 60), Sūrah 6 is the most minimalist of them all (p. 36; for a table contrasting the various commands, see p. 33).

The logic of unburdening the Qurʾānic community is a pervasive one, Lowry concludes, that easily be observed throughout Q 6:136-153. Moreover, the theme may well have been the basis for the phenomena of abrogation (naskh), takhfīf (alleviation of burden), and rukhsa (“a lenient modification of a pre-existing norm”) (p. 37). However, other legally maximalist stipulations in the Qurʾānic text must have prevailed at one point in time, contributing to the formation of the legally maximalist body of law called Islamic law (p. 37).

Key terms:

  • Islamic law: described as a “legislatively ‘maximalist’ enterprise” (p. 22); how the theology expressed in legally maximalist parts of the Qurʾān (and not the verses studied in the article) must have contributed to the development of Islamic law (p. 37); how concepts in Islamic law related to the idea of unburdening (such as abrogation previous rules [nuskh], alleviating one’s burden [takhfīf] and making a lenient modification to a pre-existing norm [rukhsa] might have been borne out of legally minimalist parts of the Qurʾān such as those studied in the article (p. 37).
  • Qurʾān: how the Qurʾān, especially with regards to Q 6:136-53 “exhibits a minimalist attitude towards law” (p. 22); how this minimalist attitude is of interpretive value for Meccan sūrahs in general (p. 22); how interpreting certain norms in the Qurʾān should be done at both the ‘āyah and the sūrah level, accompanied by an intertextualist reading by taking into account other sūrahs (p. 22); how looking at different verses in different sūrahs of the Qurʾān shows a variety of approaches to the idea of legal commandment, legal minimalism in Q 6:136-53 being only one of those approaches (p. 22); how Qurʾān contains a set of commandments and how the commandments in Sūrah 6 is the most legally minimalist of them all (p. 36); how Sūrah 4 starkly contrasts with Sūrah 6 in that the former is densely regulatory (p. 35); how Qurʾānic commandments are, at times, reminiscent of the ten Biblical commandments (p. 31; for a comparison, see the table on p. 33); how Sūrah 6 is traditionally regarded to be Meccan, with its regulatory part (that is ‘āyahs 141 and 151-3, the latter of which sets out a list of general commandments) being Medinan (p. 30); the Qurʾān was collected as a single book as we know it today, nearly two decades after the Prophet’s death (p. 29); Neuwirth’s tripartite structure for the Meccan sūrahs applies to Sura 6 too, which can be read as having three foci points: (1) Abraham’s search for a divine being, (2) “a small collection of dietary laws,” and (3) 6:136-153 studied in this article (p. 27); Sūrah 6’s general and legally minimalist commandments (p. 26).
  • fiqh: how looking at the text of the Qurʾān in classic fiqh and tafsīr methods often misses considering the Qurʾānic language “from a literary perspective” (p. 23).
  • Islamic dietary law: how the practice of mushrik communities in terms of what they eat is criticized somewhat sarcastically in the Qurʾān, followed by Qurʾān’s own restrictions, which are few in number (pp. 24-5); how the meticulous regulation of dietary laws in Judaism is a punishment imposed on the Jews for their wrongdoing according to the Qurʾān and how this does not counter Qurʾān’s claim of being legally minimalist: restrictive dietary laws are only punitive in nature, suggesting that they are exceptional (p. 25).

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